Monday, September 6, 2010

The Secret to Making Great Malbec Wine


(Sept. 2, 2010) During one of the breaks I was fortunate to be introduced to one of Argentina’s most famous winemakers, Roberto De La Mota. He produces a high-end brand called Mendel Malbec ($24, 90+ ratings), which I tasted on my last night in town. It was a very elegant malbec with fine-grained tannins; an excellent balance of ripe fruit, moderate French oak, med+ acid and 14% alcohol, and a long finish.

I asked Roberto the secret of making great malbec, and he said it had to do with two things: picking the grapes at the right time and ensuring the tannins are velvety and not harsh. In order to accomplish this he spends much time in the vineyard and said there was only a 3 to 5 day window in which to harvest malbec. If you missed it, the wine would not be as good.

Once harvested, he sorts it with a sorting table, destems, and then partially crushes the berries. He immediately inoculates with 1118 yeast (in fact everyone I talked to used commercial rather than natural yeast), and ferments in very small cement and stainless tanks at 25 to 26C. Once the ferment starts, he performs pigeage (gentle hand punching) every day, stating that this was the method to get the seeds to the bottom of the tank gently so they didn’t impart harsh tannins in the wine. He added that color was not an issue with malbec, because it was easily achieved due to dark purple skins.

Fermentation lasts 3 to 4 weeks. He said it was important to encourage a slower ferment in order to develop the “texture” and mouth feel for which malbec is so famous. He gently presses with a pneumatic press and ages free run and pressed wine separately. He said ML usually occurred in barrel the next spring. Elevage includes 12 months in 100% new French oak.

Roberto said he prefers to source his grapes from older malbec vineyards, and I was impressed with how many 80+ year old vineyards they have near Mendoza. He believes the older vines produce a higher quality wine.

I should mention that Yerco, an expert viticulturist from Chile, told the group that no other country in the world has been able to duplicate the unique taste of Mendoza malbec. He believes this is because the combination of sandy soil and dry winters/ springs, which cause the berries to stay small. Elsewhere they are usually larger, which results in less velvety texture and less intense flavors. Cahors, the birthplace of malbec in France, produces some wonderful malbecs, but they are quite different from Mendoza malbecs – with more tannin and higher acid. Yerco said that malbec from the USA and Chile is also not as distinctive as that from Argentina. Therefore, he believes they have a unique competitive advantage with their terrior.

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